Logs burning at night underneath a starry sky

The Ultimate Guide to Campfire Safety

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Summer is upon us, and nothing says good weather like camping. Nothing says camping like a campfire, hotdogs, stories, and s’ mores! While campfires create many good memories, those memories can quickly turn bad if you aren’t careful with the flames.

Nearly half of the children admitted to the emergency room for campfire injuries are under 4 years old. Not to mention burns are responsible for almost two-thirds of injuries to kids while camping. Adults, too, get serious burns from campfires.

These statistics aren’t meant to scare you, they are meant to get you thinking and preparing for your next camping trip. Accidents can be avoided if you abide by safety tips, pick a wise campfire spot, build a proper fire, put out the fire correctly, and keep all kids safe.

13 Campfire Safety Tips

We put together a list of 13 rules to help keep you safe when starting a fire outdoors.

1: Keep Water and a Shovel Close By

This is just in case the fire gets out of control, or an ember jumps out of the fire. It’s better to be safe than sorry by keeping water and a shovel nearby to quickly put out the flames and stir the blaze.

2: Never Leave a Fire Unattended

Let’s say your campfire has been burning for a while, and it’s almost out. You and your friend want to run to the gas station 5 minutes away to get more provisions. Do you put out the fire and then try to rebuild it, or do you leave because it’s only for 10 minutes?

The correct answer is to put the fire out. Even 1 minute away from the campfire is too long. This is where pre-camping preparation comes in handy. Make sure you have everything ready before you start the fire, and you can avoid putting it out too early or having to rebuild.

3: Keep Your Car and Other Flammables Away

This means clearing the area of sticks, food boxes, and leaves. Your tent, campers, car, aerosols, pressurized containers, and other potentially flammable items should be kept at least 10 feet away from the fire in order to prevent freak fires.

4: Do Not Start a Fire in the Wind

Just as you always check the weather for rain before you head out, you must also check for wind. The weather might be sunny and 75, but a gust of wind could blow sparks and create a forest fire. In high winds, you might end up smelling the fire before you see it because embers fly far!

5: Stack Campfire Wood Upwind from the Fire

If any residue jumps the pit and you don’t notice for a while, it could light your wood on fire. Next thing you know you could have a blaze on your hands. It’s safer to avoid this situation, and it’s better to not have to use your emergency water and shovel.

6: Keep Your Fire Small and Contained

There is no reason to have a large bonfire at your campsite. In fact, we recommend you keep your fire contained to a diameter of 2 feet x 2 feet x 2 feet.

7: Use Local Firewood

This tip is mostly for the trees that are alive in the beautiful location where you will be burning wood. When you bring firewood from outside of the local area, you are putting the native greenery at risk for new diseases and pests. These can decimate a forest in hardly no time.

Note: Local means the closest possible place you can purchase wood, whether that be a convenience store or someone’s front yard.

8: If the Area is Dry, Water it Down

This might be an unfamiliar trick to some, but if you have planned for enough water it can be very helpful. When you are in a dry location, whether the desert or a fertile area experiencing drought, it’s easy for things past the 5-foot soil radius to catch on fire.

Watering down the 10-foot radius around the pit will help prevent any jumping, inflamed debris.

9: Don’t Use Flammable Liquid

You’ve probably seen the videos of teens and young adults starting fires using lighter fluid. This is extremely dangerous and could result in serious injury and death. Same with using diesel fuel and gasoline…just don’t do it!

10: Using a Match?

Despite the popularity of lighters, many campers still prefer to use matches. If you are one of these outdoors people, we have one tip specifically for you. Do not throw the match away until it is completely cool to the touch. Or, just throw it in the fire. Hot matches can start trouble.

11: Bring a Fire Extinguisher if You Have Children or Pets

When there are children and pets around, we suggest bringing a fire extinguisher. But first, do some training at home to be sure you, other adults, and older children know how to use it.

12: Don’t Prod or Throw Things in the Fire Unnecessarily

There will be times when you must poke the fire, such as when you are repositioning logs. However, moving burning wood around for no reason can cause harm. In addition, throwing anything into a burning fire is dangerous because the resulting sparks can fly back onto you.

13: Know the Regulations

Before you go to the campsite, call ahead to find out if there is a fire ban. If there is no campground manager or you are staying in a primitive area, you should take your search online. Just because the area doesn’t have an official entity in charge doesn’t mean you can have a fire.

To figure out if there is fire danger, simply search fire bans and the area you are visiting. Or, get onto the website of the city, state, or local governing body in charge of the land. They likely have a warning about fire safety displayed if there is a current ban.

How to Pick a Campfire Spot

Logs burning on the beach at sunset.

Choosing your own campfire spot is only necessary if you are staying overnight in a place with no pre-built fire pit or ring. When one of these is available you must use them, as they have likely been created in a fire safe place.

When picking a location, keep the following in mind:

  • Pick a place away from overhanging branches to avoid scorching them or worse, catching them on fire. There should be 3 feet between the tallest flame and anything above, including power lines.
  • Choose a spot that is far away from bushes, logs, moss, tree trunks, and brush, especially the dead variety.
  • Try to locate in a valley protected from winds.
  • Finding an area already covered with dirt or rock is better than tearing up the plants around the pit you

How to Build a Campfire


Now, you are ready to build. How you do it depends upon what is available at your campsite. If you are camping in a State Park, National Park, or designated primitive site, chances are the sites already have a pit or ring provided for you. In this case, you can jump ahead to step 4.

If you want or need to know how to build a campfire starting from the bare minimum, begin here:

Step 1: Dig the Pit

The pit you dig should not be too deep or too wide, as we want to keep everything confined. We recommend a 1-foot deep and 2-foot wide hole.

Step 2: Clear a 5-Foot Area around the Pit

This area should be dug down all the way to the dirt. There should be no flora, alive or dead, within a 5-foot radius of your pit.

Step 3: Circle the Pit With Rocks

This is helpful to keep your blaze within the confines of the pit. Find larger rocks in your area and build them up around the pit for protection. Keep in mind, rocks built too high can interrupt the flow of heat to your cold feet!

Step 4: Build the Fire!

When you think of a campfire, you probably imagine the classic cone design. We will cover that, but we would also like to introduce you to two alternatives: the pyramid and the log cabin.

All of the following techniques require a bottom layer of tinder. This is your small collection of dead leaves, pine needles, moss, and small twigs.

Types of campfire bases

A stack of burning logs with a cooking grate above the flames

Every building begins with a solid foundation of concrete, this is no different with a campfire. The base of the campfire is the foundation that keeps it burning safely. Here are a few of the most popular ways to build a campfire from the ground up.

Cone

This fire shape is easy to make and it produces results quickly. Unfortunately, you will be tending it all night long due to the limited amount of wood you can pile on safely at once.

To make a cone, place your tinder in a small pile in the middle and light it. Now, add some kindling such as sticks and log chips in the cone shape. Continue adding small sticks until the base of the fire is nice and hot. Only now can you add the larger logs in the shape of a cone.

Pyramid

The pyramid is also known as the upside-down fire, because it begins burning at the top! This ensures your campfire lasts a long time without needing to be babysat. However, the pyramid requires more wood and will create a larger flame than the cone.

Lay your 3 or 4 biggest logs on the bottom in a row. From where you are standing, walk 90 degrees to the right. Then, place the next 3 or 4 largest pieces of wood down. Move 90 more degrees to the right and then put the next smallest pieces down. Add one more layer if you wish.
Finally, top with kindling and tender. Now light your match, and start the fire!

Note: If you have the overhead capacity, you can build the pyramid higher.

Log Cabin

A log cabin is the most difficult technique of the three, meaning it takes more time to build. Nevertheless, it doesn’t require much tending and it produces coals hot enough to cook your foil pack dinners!

Place a lump of tinder and kindling in the middle of the pit. Once that is done, place two logs on opposite sides of the pile. Put two more logs on top, perpendicular to the first logs. You should now have square surrounding the tinder.

Continue adding layers to 3 or 4 high, making the space inside the square smaller and smaller. Add more tinder in the middle until it reaches the brim of the log cabin. Then, top off with a layer of kindling. Now, light the top and sit back for a relaxing night of watching flames!

How to Safely Extinguish a Campfire

We’ve all seen those people who go to bed with campfire coals still smoking. Some of these people even have the gull to make breakfast on these coals. They don’t realize the danger they just put themselves and the whole campground in!

If there are steps provided in a pamphlet or posted somewhere at the campground, follow these. If there aren’t, here is one surefire method we follow that works every time:

  • Pour water on the fire.
  • Stir the ashes using the handy shovel you brought along
  • Add more water and stir again.
  • Repeat until the ashes are cool to the touch.

Note: You might know some people who use dirt or sand to cover the fire. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to extinguish the coals. In fact, these soils only serve to insulate them. Coals can flame back up at any time, especially if they become uncovered before they can die down.

Keeping Kids Safe at the Campfire

Do not let children, or pets for that matter, get too close to the campfire. It’s important to keep your eye on children the way you keep an eye on the fire. It doesn’t take much time for flames to spread. Here are some more ideas on keeping kids safe at the campfire:

  • When there are children present, we suggest bringing along a fire extinguisher and teaching them how to use it to increase confidence and reduce fear.
  • Teach your children how to stop, drop, and roll in case they catch on fire.
  • Show your older kids how to put out a fire themselves.
  • Read kids books about camping.
  • Teach young children that fire is hot, and to keep a safe distance unless being accompanied by an adult to roast hotdogs or marshmallows.
  • Do not let kids horse around by the fire.
  • Trade supervision shifts
  • Add rocks if there are none to act as a physical barrier to help youngsters understand.

Conclusion

If you’re camping this season, staying safe around the campfire should be the utmost priority. In fact, there are so many ways to keep yourself and the environment around you safe there is no excuse for allowing your fire to get out of hand.

As long as you follow our tips and instructions for campfire safety, you can feel confident striking that match. You can rest assured knowing you have a safe location and build, as well as a foolproof plan for keeping children out of harm’s way and extinguishing the blaze.

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